Journalist Alessandro Schiavone meets up with Germany and Bayer Leverkusen legend Jens Nowotny in London ahead of a friendly game between former German players and retired Italian, Mexican, French, Chinese, Brazilian and Portuguese footballers.
Jens Nowotny is a man who inspires respect in the neutral observer. He is big, brash, well-dressed, polite and intellectually ahead of many of his peers thanks to his outstanding language skills. Retired since 2007 and regarded as one of the greatest defenders of his generation in his homeland, Nowotny is also a true Bayer Leverkusen and Germany legend having graced the Bundesliga pitches 336 times and worn Germany’s historic shirt on 48 occasions. He also made 34 appearances in the Champions League with die Werkself which in itself is an outstanding feat.
That said, we all know the difficulties retired players face with adapting to ‘normal life’ once they call time on their career. But the 43-year old claims that he has had no such ‘ identity crisis, lack of purpose, lack of direction and boredom’ since walking away from the game in 2007. ‘ I don’t miss football. These games between friends are also a lot of fun, I was injured too often during my career and thus I think I couldn’t have played on.’, he said.
In fact, it is common knowledge that once an athlete is spat out by the sports industry and a proud career fades into oblivion, the struggles begin. For the former centre-back however, the end of his career in terms of pain and frustrations coincided with the year 2002, when he finished as runner-up with Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, in the German Cup and in the Champions League. For the record, it was the final that was held in Scotland’s capital Glasgow against Real Madrid’s Galacticos when talisman Zinedine Zidane scored that beautiful volley to give Real Madrid their third Champions League in only five years. But for Nowotny it was a nightmare as not only did Bayer Leverkusen come up short 2-1 but he also limped off with an injury. Yet, the year 2002 rimes with curse in Nowotny’s mind.
‘That’s it’ you think. But the worst was yet to come as he also finished second at the World Cup in 2002 a few months later.
I met Nowotny ahead of a football event taking place at the O2 Arena in London a few weeks ago. We were sat in the hotel’s busy lobby. Having known him for quite a while, he was open to answering any kind of questions despite my Italian background and Germany’s elimination against Italy at the World Cup 11 years ago. He brands that tournament held in his homeland ‘the pinnacle of my career’, adding ‘other special moments were the ones we were all together. Players, families, kids. I will cherish all those memories forever.’ Before touching on his playing career, I was eager to find out more about Bayer Leverkusen’s demise following the departures of a number of key players including Hakan Calhanoglu and Javier Hernandez in the summer.
In the summer Hakan Calhanoglu joined AC Milan from Bayer Leverkusen. Do you think he is already a finished article or does he need to improve ?
Hakan boasts superb qualities but he definitely needs to improve his game to take Milan forward and to be successful.
What are his best qualities ?
Technically he is a very gifted player and he also masters the ‘direct game’ very good like his free-kicks which are amazing. But in his career, he hasn’t proven anything over a long period of time, thus I am curious to see if he makes the grade in Italy.
In January he was handed a four-month ban by the German federation DFB as a punishment for simultaneously signing for two different clubs back in 2011. The fact that he renounced to claim his salary during that time is something remarkable. Would you personally have done the same thing ?
Well, I wouldn’t have left Leverkusen in the first place. Thus, if I want to leave a club then I can’t pretend to still be paid and think ‘ Give me money and then I go’. What Calhanoglu did wasn’t something exceptional or extraordinary, it was just a normal thing to do. Had he not done it then people would have accused him of greed.And this would have been negative for his reputation.
How do you see the future of your former club Bayer Leverkusen after Calhanoglu left for AC Milan, and Chiccarito Hernandez went to West Ham while Bellarabi and Brandt could do the same in future…
Bayer Leverkusen have embarked on a rebuilding process. If this will bear fruit or not, I don’t know. We have to wait and see. It’s difficult to dismantle a team that had been quite successful in the past and only declined in the past 6 months. I am skeptical about what they are doing right now. I don’t know if it is going to work or if they need at least a year to get going.In my view, it takes time and as a result, they won’t qualify for the Champions League this season.
Is James Rodriguez’s move to arch-rival Bayern Munich the most spectacular move in Bundesliga history ?
Only on social media. Football-wise I don’t know. I like him as a footballer but I am not sure if he can take Bayern Munich forward. He is an upgrade on Douglas Costa but has different qualities compared to him. Costa is very fast and I have rarely seen such a quick winger. Bayern also have Coman, Robben and Ribery on the flanks but James is a completely different player to them all.
Talking about yourself and your career, what do you regard as the happiest moments ?
The World Cup 2006 hosted by Germany was the most beautiful moment of my entire career. The year 2002 might have also been a great year but I picked up an injury, thus when I look back the 2006 fairytale tops the list. Also I love reflecting on the times our families were together before and after the games. Thus are the most beautiful memories from the good old days.
Switching back to the year 2002, are you still haunted by Oliver Kahn’s mistake against Brazil in the final. Do you never wake up and think ‘ Had Oli not done that mistake then Germany would have conquered the world’ ?
I wouldn’t have played that final any way. But yeah, Rivaldo shot from distance, Kahn fumbled by parrying into Ronaldo’s path who then fired home from close-range.
Listen, this can happen to anyone. Sadly, it happened at the most inappropriate of moments but this doesn’t mean that Kahn had become a ‘worse’ goalkeeper due to that howler. Make no mistake, at the time he was the world’s best keeper…
Aside Kahn’s mistake, yourself and Ballack had to sit out through injury and suspension respectively. This was a harsh blow for Germany..
Hadn’t I played in the earlier rounds would we even have reached the final? Maybe not, we don’t know. But I would have loved to witness a World Cup final…
So who will win the World Cup next summer ?
Should I really be objective? Ok…Germany will win it…
The smile on his face when he said that was huge and honest.
Featured photograph: Wikipedia